“All These Tongues Rummage Junk”: An Interview with San Francisco’s Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin
San Francisco, it seems, is starved for poetic mobilization, an enlightened whisper in a withered ear bent by time and the bludgeoning of bureaucrats, those who have too long lined their pockets at the expense of the city’s purveyors of art, culture, and joy.
Tongo Eisen-Martin is a bracing answer to the technocratic pall, a social landscape he observes to be “an open air corporate campus.” Or, put another way, “This police state candy dispenser that you all call a neighborhood” (“ The Course of Meal “).
To speak with Eisen-Martin, I found, is to engage with a galvanizing spirit. His is a generous mind, one that reduces fatalism to a murmur in retreat. During our exchange, Eisen-Martin discussed the proletariat potential of the poet laureate position, the redefinition of education as a liberatory practice, and the revolutionary utility in making “a deal with the cosmos”. It’s a wealth of insight, so I’d advise you to shut up and read.
Tongo Eisen-Martin is the real fuckin’ deal.
Lydia Sviatoslavsky: I read that you were born and raised in San Francisco’s Mission District. Do you still live there?
Tongo Eisen-Martin: No, I’m in Bernal Heights.
LS: What was it like to grow up in the Mission?
TEM: Well, you know, I was still a little kid when I moved out of there, but San Francisco in general was a much more revolutionary place. It was still within its organic evolution as a place of resistance, of revolutionary art and culture where the people are in charge of the streets. Now it’s like an open air corporate campus. It’s tempting to romanticize a pre-gentrified city, but it’s almost like nobody is alive now. It’s an existence reduced to these corporate-prescribed tasks, to such an overwhelming degree that it’s just kind of maddening. But the city had its problems. The city is on stolen land, but I think there was a point where history was almost up for grabs. You’ll never have the spontaneous evolution to a revolutionary stage of a society, that always requires people who made a commitment to revolutionary transformation. The ruling class de-industrialized the United States and destabilized non-white people, destabilized poor people, and therefore destabilized the militancy of resistance, the political posture that people were growing into, but there was still a gamble because that energy was still rebellious. And there wasn’t this mass buy-in, and the working class was still a fan of itself, wanted to see itself on television, as opposed to this celebrity religion we’ve got going on now. As much as they like to pin a culture on a generation, at all times there are multiple generations alive, right? I think San Francisco had a beautiful convergence of generations. You had Black Panthers and other like-organization veterans who were still around, still had energy, were still doing work for the people. You had an intercity generation growing into a fearlessness, and growing into a cultural independence with hip hop, that was basically anti-establishment. And you also had the beautiful souls attracted to San Francisco, all the misfits, all the wanderers and all the artists. The power was very much in our hands. Was it beyond the contradictions of the United States? Nah. But there was a real beautiful people power that just had so many colors of its own. They gave me this almost psychic confidence to put together whatever identity is necessary for transformation, or to not conform my psyche to hegemony, to be comfortable outside of the conventions that pay you, and the conventions that save your life. San Francisco, or the Bay Area in general, was not. Our comfort zone contradicts the system.
LS: Yes. And given those fraught feelings about San Francisco, what does your new status as the city’s poet laureate mean to you? How do you hold that in your head?
TEM: You know, this poet laureate thing is almost an improvisation, a collective improvisation in itself, right? I’m the eighth one. So I looked it up. [ Laughs.] I didn’t do too much research, but at a glance, the poet laureate was a position in England. It was a poet that was basically adopted into the royal family. So that’s the institutional origin of the title, right. And what some forces would probably like for it to be — a poet adopted by whatever the power structure is. But see, here in San Francisco, there’s kind of a different city-state going on. I think, of all my limited but intermediate experience with poetry as a profession, the poet laureate position actually has the most proletariat potentials of anything I’ve seen so far. Number one because it’s really run through the library, the library of San Francisco, which is just a whole village of extremely humanistic people. If you wonder where the cool people have been working, they’re hiding out in the library. And so, in that way, having this public commitment, to work with the library just gives it a whole proletariat potential that’s just about bringing my know-how down to whoever wants to engage it, and trying to add to the cultural landscape of San Francisco some structures that take place on our territory. Because the libraries are technically our territory, right? So just kind of moving the poetry away from implied towers is a potential for the position, or what I’m most enthusiastic about.
LS: What do you have planned?
TEM: It’s a simple equation. It’s a lot of youth to work with and it’s a lot of adults to work with. I think it’s actually a little bit of a fascism if you peel away the layers, kind of like categorizing folks, categorizing programming. Within it is really a revolutionary kind of stance because I’m not oppressed by white youth, I’m oppressed by white power structures. So in response do we just need youth mobilizing, do we need whatever the category that’s up for funding? No, we need the entire village. So I wanna extend the revolutionary potentials of poetry to the whole village. But, again, who wants to get together and write, and learn the mechanics of writing and performing. And also, in spirit with or in generative themes with social analysis. So writing workshops that are also exercises in social analysis are also the objective. But it’s a simple equation: It’s classes, and it’s microphones. I’m also working with the San Francisco Bay View Newspaper, and I haven’t reached out to El Tecolote yet, but there are some beautiful people over there I would love to work with as well, kind of curating revolutionary poetry in these people presses. So my orientation is really just people’s instruction.
LS: Yeah, speaking of the crossover of art and social analysis, that really struck me when I was reading your curriculum, “ We Charge Genocide Again.” I was extremely impressed with the way you set that up, the allowance for a kind of imaginative approach: Occupying different mindsets, the malleability of meaning and language depending on which social bodies you occupy, and the idea of knowing thy enemy, looking at the puppeteers within the power structure and how they communicate with one another. I think that’s a really valuable approach, and one that isn’t often introduced in your average education.
TEM: In a way, it should be the only thing introduced in education. The foundation of education has to be a liberatory practice, and specific to the task of whatever your slotted history is, which is — We’re in a time of severe alienation of everything. I mean, almost everything in your mind at this point is prescribed, are prescribed identities that serve a ruling class agenda: Identities, tasks, labour.Basically none of the mode of production is really in the people’s hands right now, and the cultural reality of that is probably even more severe. So the good news/bad news of starting in that cultural hole is that, yes, while there are all of these battles to fight, especially concerning extrajudicial killing of Black people, this medical genocide, really just a capitalism in severe crisis in a climate in catastrophe, it inspires a need for action. Like what’s the action, what’s the action, what’s the action. There’s so much to combat, but that cultural work comes first. Because really what all of these physical practices of resistance and this physical manifestation of the historical process comes down to is how you see yourself and how you see the world. So that’s the beginning of the revolution. That’s the beginning of a revolutionary development. So it’s a beautiful coincidence, or lucky for us poets. This is our time to shine. [ Laughs.] You’re in perfect shape to do something about the insane reality you see.
LS: I’m curious about your origin story. When did you initially encounter poetry? Or was there a figure in your life who you felt embodied that spirit?
TEM: I got lucky. I went to Meadows Livingstone Elementary School, which is basically a freedom school in San Francisco where we were the center of the universe. We’re not the afterthought history chapter. Black history is history, and we’ll figure it out from there. The Harlem Renaissance was presented to me as lineage. Also, growing up in a revolutionary home, all of the shoulders I stand on are not extracurricular, you know. They’re just like a Last Poets track, or a Gil Scott-Heron track. That’s just breakfast. So, in a way, the art and revolutionary culture in general was just what we were breathing. Also, you never underestimate the influence of hip hop on an 80’s baby. It was like the inflation period after the Big Bang. There’s a big bang in the universe and then a whole lot of moves got made. [ Laughs.] A lot of quantum moves got made. And reflection. I think growing up alongside an art form really just evolving rapidly and evolving fearlessly, evolving autonomously and evolving with the people, I was given that energy to pattern myself after. Again, if I could say I had anything, it’s just that — a comfort standing outside of convention. And hip hop. Especially Bay Area hip hop, too. The Bay Area hip hop really almost had a little renaissance of its own. So just kind of like that being the norm, that being standard… Words, lines were always running through my mind aggressively. Poetry is kind of a thing I just couldn’t escape. Now I’ve come to understand that’s almost how my mind engages with reality.
LS: Yeah, there’s something kind of magical about it. You can see it in your work. You mentioned patterns of logic in one interview I read, and your work functions outside of that, even breaking standard patterns of thinking, or logical trains. You kind of tap into this magical disruption of that, bring words together in a way that’s musical.
TEM: I appreciate it, and it’s interesting you said musical, because it’s kind of a call and response. So if a new kind of pattern of logic doesn’t just fall out of the sky for you, fall into the lap, you always just kind of respond to the cliche. Riff on the cliche. And I guess I just got lucky for having an ear for that.
LS: Yeah, the cliche arrives first, right? It’s accessible, so you work around it.
TEM: Right, right.
LS: Does that influence the way you move through the world in any way?
TEM: Yeah, it does. I think that what poetry has made visceral for me is that really everything is a meditation, and a meditation that is an opportunity to hold yourself in a healthy, centered place. So in order to make music with this reality, you have to learn how to relax with it, relax with yourself. I think some of the great artists either stumbled into it or were born just knowing it, that it’s your internal cultivation that really advances your craft. Because the more you can let your ego go, and I’m stuttering because I’m super unqualified to speak on — I don’t wanna disrespect ancient wisdom, but the more you can let your ego go, the more you can see. The more patterns you can see, the more connections you can see, the more energy you can crystallize. It’s really more definition and imagination that creates my images, and so in order to make that kind of music it requires a learning, and it requires praxis, which requires a genuine humility. So it’s the quest for that that really makes the power possible. Some may call it a deal with the devil, but you really make a deal with the cosmos, you know? You’re gonna do as best you can by yourself, do as best you can by human beings, and do as best you can by the craft, and really through that sanity all that music becomes available.
LS: I was actually gonna ask you about that. Ego is such a massive obstacle, especially in this digital age of the image and culture of narcissism. You talk about poetry being this “loner craft,” so how do you sidestep the pitfalls of the ego? How do you share this inherently solitary craft with a collective?
TEM: A commitment to internal cultivation really involves practices. Real meditation, consistent meditation, just as much as you would work on your poetry, you work on relating to yourself and relating to reality in a healthy way, and really making these things the center of your day. After that, the rest kind of takes care of itself. Collective takes care of itself. So I just keep my attention on, well, what are the actual trenches of practice? What have I literally done today, and what am I gonna literally do tomorrow? And the thing is, revolutionary movement is the same. It’s the same science. What I always vote for is to actually stick to the basics, and to not think about the product. So I can be like, ‘Here, I will be the revolutionary poet hydra,’ and if I keep my mind on presenting that result, well I’m ultimately gonna betray all of those potentials. I’m gonna betray my internal cultivation, I’m gonna betray my movement potential, and I’m gonna betray the poetry. But if I give each its due, each its practice, it’ll come together for me, and it’ll come together for others, appropriately.
LS: What drives you to write? When does it strike?
TEM: Well, the world is playing along so I’m dancing with the opportunity, for sure. But again I just wanna see what my mind can do, and I wanna see what language can do. There’s this book called The People Could Fly, and it was a book of Black folk tales, and in the title story of the book, there’s some Africans, so-called enslaved on a plantation, right, and the assertion of the narrator is, “The people could fly.” They just forgot how. And one day, this old man goes up to somebody, and he just whispers something in their ear, and they just take off. They remember how to fly, and they take off. And he runs and whispers in everybody’s ear, and then he takes off and they’re gone. You know, it sounds corny, but that story stuck with me since I was a kid, and to this day. If you could actually whisper something in somebody’s ear that would remind them how to fly, you know, what is that? What poetry is that?That potential.
LS: Like what would be enough to jar someone…
TEM: Right. To snap us out of it, or relax us into it. I think that’s my loftiest objective. But I’m just looking around, really. I mean, at all times I’ve got a few experiments going. I’m just poking around.
LS: Yeah, the universe offers a lot if you’re paying attention, especially in a cityscape. It’s constant.
TEM: Right. It’s a mass of people doing things consciously and subconsciously for various agendas. So the poems write themselves, really.
LS: Do you have any San Francisco haunts? Any places you write, places that inspire or disturb you?
TEM: Nah, I’m a homebody. I just write in my room. San Francisco’s a painful place to walk through right now, or a painful place to try to make a residency out of. When I walk around, I just fantasize about what a real unity would look like, where the people are safe and the ruling class is not. What kind of vibration does that feel like.
LS: You’ve mentioned that the creative and literary scene around here is kind of tucked away, a little bit more difficult to access. I’ve experienced that, too. I was wondering if you could speak to the San Francisco arts and literary scene versus the scene you experienced when you were living in New York.
TEM: The scene in New York was singular. I mean, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which is really where I was raised, was just a whole different army of ghosts. Just standing on that, on the Nuyorican renaissance, really.
LS: How did you discover that cafe?
TEM: A friend of mine just took me down there with this poet named Anthony Morales. He was from the Bronx, and he had been there, and he said, “Let’s go down to Nuyorican.” And what was beautiful about how he introduced me to the place, he brought me down there with a little bit of swagger, like, ‘We don’t come here just to fit in. We’re not just happy to be here, we’ve come to eat, too!’ It’s a thing when a legendary place brings you in from the cold. Well, I say it raised me, and it really gave me a commitment to work hard in the craft. That who you’re taking the baton from, and the revolutionary potentials of art, as well as just being in family with all these other beautiful souls who have wandered into this space, it deserves your utmost respect and effort. Now, of course, I was a little bit of a knucklehead. [ Laughs.] I’m not saying I was the best disciple, you know. But among a hundred things, that’s one of the first things I think of, what was ingrained in me. But so many people have passed through that way. And so many cities outside of New York owe a bit of their culture to somebody who passed through that way. It’s really like an international hub, and a mecca for some. But back here at the ranch, interestingly, I’m speaking about a Nuyorican of 20 years ago. I think right now, in general, regardless of location, regardless of scene, I think just the state of contradictions in this society has all kinds of social endeavor — It feels like it’s in a period of transition. So I hesitate to diagnose the San Francisco scene, but I do think there’s a lot of untapped potential, and there’s no real reason to play it safe anymore. There’s no reason to color within the lines. So as long as the priority is just developing ourselves and being part of a people who are developing themselves, the rest can kind of take care of itself. But people are doing some really interesting things with language right now. There are some really strong poets, and there are some really strong poets running around the Bay Area. So I think what we decide to ground ourselves in will determine what our chapter looks like.
LS: What has your experience been like post-pandemic? Any new discoveries about yourself, or your work? Any new conclusions about the state of humanity?
TEM: Which pandemic, you know what I mean? I mean, it’s clear time is running out. It’s clear that it’s like, okay, at one point it becomes death for everybody, suffering for everybody. This is not sustainable. It’s not a drill, or maybe this is the last one. This is like the last drill you get. The protocols, the practices don’t change. I’m a pretty internal person anyway, but it did even expose for me the places where hegemony hangs out and hides, and tries to hitch a ride to a revolutionary effort. I have actually developed some writing practices that have been more of a meditative approach to the page, really trying to boycott the evaluator voice slash energy system when writing, to stay away from that eye that wants to see if this is a line that we can get high off of. Is this a line that we can get excited about, or is this a line to depress us? That actually is a voice that exists for itself. There are some tricks to turning it down, some tricks to boycotting it. That’s what I’ve been working with. Luckily, it came along while I’ve been working on this third book, so, you know, I’m gonna make it out of here with something to show you.
LS: Is Waiting Behind Tornadoes for Food only immediately available in the UK?
TEM: Yeah. So that book has a smaller press in the UK called Materials Press. They got in tune with me and asked if they could put out a book of essays that I wrote that were published online with some older poems, and with a few new ones as well.
LS: And you’ve got another book in the works, too.
TEM: Yeah, I have another book. It should be here in the fall on City Lights.
LS: Speaking of pandemic madness, how do you digest or work through corporate appropriation of Black Lives Matter, and the relative impotence of social media activism?
TEM: It’s on us to figure out more successful equations to organizing folk, and bringing people into a movement process. I don’t wanna shortchange people’s revolutionary potentials or formations because we all start somewhere, but in my prayer, really, is that there is a coming synthesis of ideology and resulting organism that will codify an anti-imperialism in a way that really turns humanity around, gets us around the corner. What we’re presented with doesn’t matter. The practice is the practice, objectives are the objectives. You’ve just gotta adjust yourself and adjust your practices appropriately to the conditions. I think we actually have an interesting opportunity because, yes, there are all kinds of ideological differences, but there’s a lot of room for unity. And technically how hard has anyone been disrespected? Like we can forgive ourselves and we can forgive each other, and embrace the necessary ideology, embrace the necessary practices to get to a revolutionary stage of this society.
LS: Do you have any guiding beliefs about the nature of humanity or existence that inform your work and how you move through the world?
TEM: Like belief systems that other people came up with?
LS: Like your own long standing, self-made conclusions.
TEM: Yeah. I take to the basics, man. We need a transformation of the social relations of production. We need a transformation of the structuring of production. We need a dismantling of this military-industrial complex as it exists both here and abroad. We need the ruling class dissolved, organically. May their carbon go unharmed, you know what I mean, but they have to give up their toys. They have to give up their murder machine. They have to give up their apparatus. I actually don’t think we need a science fiction writer to give us a new day, or imagine a new one. We just reorganize all these facets of reality: educational, medical, on and on. If you reorganize them around saving human beings, nurturing human beings, the rest does kind of take care of itself. We can have an open education as human right. Like if you wanna go study with one of the best minds in the field, you should be able to go do that for free. You should be able to go hear what they have to say for free. The best minds or the most skilled people would love to teach anyone. Just put the biosphere first. You can do that without even reinventing too many wheels.
LS: The bones are there, yeah. So what is this book you’re working on? What ideas are you working through?
TEM: It’s hard to give a synopsis because so much of it was just borne of this quest to evolve. I found that after my last book, Heaven is All Goodbyes, I kinda hit a wall where everything I wrote just sounded like a B-side. And as groovy as those lines can be, I think it’s beautiful when a poet is teaching you something, when a poem is teaching you something. I think it’s even more beautiful when you can tell that a poet is actually teaching themselves something in front of you. I felt that I was really just kind of imitating myself on the page. I wasn’t finding new insight, so that’s what I asked the cosmos, “Man, just give me a new planet to play on.” So I had these poems, and they just weren’t blowing my mind, and I was trying to solve the problem like a chef might, or maybe a chemist or mathematician, trying to get an equation right. Like maybe if we add more of this or take away some of that, this type of thing. It wasn’t working. But I stumbled into this trick of instead of moving so conspiratorially through the page, to lean more into or keep my attention — It’s a weird gambit, but to take your attention off of the poem itself, and place it on the energy that you’re feeling, whatever that feeling is, accepting that energy and whatever it gives you. And I actually found that the wordplay actually became more mature, and I actually found myself getting more vulnerable. And I got lucky again, in that then taking that approach, and then being given all of this. Because it’s been a painful time in this quarantine. So I have this new kind of technology of transmuting energy, and then I’m given all of this pain to transmute, so groovy new poems have appeared. And that type of biography is how I work anyway. I never really start like, ‘Ok, this will be a poem about __, or this will be a book about __.’ I just start with the tools, and just see what’s going on. So the synopsis is really the backstory. But now along the way, there is a lot on genocide, a lot on the principal contradictions of this society. There’s a plea, or implication, or a whining to the ancestors. There’s an outreach of sorts going on in there. I did write these poems around a lot of jazz music, so there’s a lot of those affinities in there as well. But, you know, it’s just another year of an anti-imperialist life.
LS: Well there’s so much clarity to your work, too. It takes effort to maintain a critical distance, especially as we’re constantly fed prepackaged media narratives. That in itself is an accomplishment.
TEM: I appreciate it.
LS: What contemporary artists excite you right now?
TEM: You know,I think Les Twins are the hardest things in art. These cats are instructive. Watch them dance, man. They’ll show you the way. They’re lightweight prophets when they do their thing. Who am I borrowing from right now… I’ve kind of been shut in with the OG’s lately. There are some cold young poets running around California right now. Michal “MJ” Jones is cold, as is a sister named Mimi Tempestt. There’s Alie Jones, Darius Simpson, Landon Smith, DaJuan Carter. There’s a whole crew. James Cagney, Tureeda Mikell, Joyce Lee. There are some beautiful Bay Area poets. To tell you the truth, it’s been me and Coltrane, dog. These Young Turks have been keeping me on my toes, though. Oh, and my comrade, Josiah Luis Alderete. If people wanna know something, though, there’s a beautiful poet named Q.R. Hand, Jr, who just passed away. He was a genius, man. I’m gonna publish a manuscript of his. I started a press called Black Freighter Press. We got his manuscript done before he passed away, so we’re gonna put that out. But I’m not really a good business person. Literally, though, for anyone who wants to put something new in their diet, Whose Really Blues by Q.R. Hand, Jr. He’s kind of like the giant who got away, you know. All of the samurai know who he is, but he didn’t choose to make a big splash. He had a divine consciousness. One of those outer-worldly figures.
LS: When did you conceive of Black Freighter Press? How did that come about?
TEM: It’s actually been on my mind for a while. Just to give us one more vehicle, try to be of some help, a way to use what I’ve learned to help other folks. To capture some semblance of the means of production. But yeah, it’s been on my mind for a couple years now. So we have Josiah Luis Alderete. We’re gonna do his book. We’re gonna do a posthumous release for Q.R. Hand, Jr., and there’s a kid doing life in prison in Florida named Christopher Malec. We’re gonna put out his manuscript, and a few more on deck right now. We actually have a book out now, too, called Wash the Dead by Mahogany L. Browne, which is a collaboration with a visual artist named Russell Craig, who had done some time himself. He’s a brilliant visual artist.
LS: It seems like you’re really seizing all the most effective channels, given your mission. You have this press and you’ve taught creative writing, as well. Have you learned anything new about the craft through teaching?
TEM: Yeah, you know what I’ve found? I’ve had a few incarnations, right: Poet, teacher. And when I took off the gloves and started doing more movement organizing, what I noticed was that it’s the same skills. It’s not the same activities, it’s just that what changes in a revolutionary process is the structure under which you perform it, and then, at the same time, allowing that structure that you perform through to transform it, or make it appropriate. So this is what your question reminds me of. It’s the same thing, we’re just now putting it in more people’s hands, or taking our skills and making them more and more of a benefit of a kind of a unity or people’s power, which is the good news for people who have been engaged in social works and don’t know, or don’t even think, ‘Well, what would a revolutionary movement be?’ It actually is the same thing. You just take everything you already know how to do, and you put it to the service of a different objective. Really it’s just a different institutional reality.
LS: Yeah, you were talking earlier about being blessed with revolutionary parents, so it’s kind of this generous extension of sharing knowledge through different channels. It’s effective.
TEM: Mhm. And we’re looking forward to seeing what the next incarnation is.
LS: Aside from the book you’re working on, what’s next for you?
TEM: I just wanna see some kind of semblance of revolutionary movement, revolutionary organization, and participate. Anything besides that can be improvised. If I was to wish upon a star, I wanna be part of a movement.It’s interesting, when the people have more power in a society, the artists actually have a better time. We can materialize fairly groovy venues, collectives, and ways of going about art, you can put some magical things together, but there’s just nothing that can touch a reality that the people are actually determining. Because we are the people, and us being a little more held hostage by the imagination — Imagine people’s imagination roaring with more confidence. I just want a taste of that.
LS: Well, there are revolutionary practices, and then there are the aesthetics of revolution, right. And it seems like some people get caught up in the superficial aesthetics of revolution, and there’s no mobilization there. It’s challenging.
TEM: It is. It’s challenging and disheartening to see so many people… getting it wrong. [ Laughs.] But for decades nothing happens, and then in a year, decades happen. And even just the way dialectics work, we are all part of a future synthesis, right. So even the people who have it the most twisted are still part of a synthesis that will have it right. And so it all moves history forward. They wanna sow that despair in you, that maybe history is not evolving, that maybe the nature of history is not evolution, that it’s not a transforming thing. But it is, and no matter how much they try to slow down social evolutions, and it just appears to be the same old thing, or the same mistakes over and over again, that’s just not the nature of any facet of reality. So even the computer chair revolutionaries will be coming along for the ride eventually. In a way, it’s already solved. The principal contradictions are already resolved. We just have to figure out what instrument of transformation we relax into to advance this thing. But there are just too many little geniuses running around here for me to think that the universe is just done with this experiment. There are too many geniuses, too many beautiful souls running around for this to stay in the clutches of hegemonic brats indefinitely.
Excerpts from this story were originally published at LocalNewsMatters.org.
*Title pulled from one of my favorite poems by Eisen-Martin, Faceless*
Featured image by Kyler Knox, courtesy of Tongo Eisen-Martin.
Originally published at https://thought-rot.net on February 19, 2021.